The Times of India
by Padmaparna Ghosh
Even as the new government has promised broadband networks across rural India, private agencies are making big strides in ‘last mile connectivity’, helping those living in remote areas get online
Last month, when Michael Ginguld visited a school in rural Jharkhand, he saw a group of 10 animated girls huddled around a computer. They took little notice of him, as they were busy looking at the Wikipedia page on Islam.
“Though 30% of the class is Muslim, they didn’t know much about the religion, so the headmaster asked them to research and make a presentation on it,” says Ginguld, founder, director (strategy and operations), Rural Broadband Pvt Ltd (RBPL), adding, “This is a real life example of the world of information that the internet can provide.”
RBPL is among a handful of enterprises working towards providing reliable, constant broadband connectivity to rural sectors, areas long ignored by larger internet service providers (ISPs) and state agencies because of low returns against high investments. Even though the new government has just announced that broadband connectivity across rural India is a prime focus, digital penetration in these areas is currently 6-7% though, says Ginguld, real broadband connectivity is about 1-2%. Private agencies like RBPL are supplying last mile connectivity by literally ‘pulling’ connections from towns/cities at the edge of connected world to remote areas, many of which have not even seen a computer yet.
Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a Delhi-based not-for-profit that seeks sustainable information communication technology solutions for underserved and unreached regions and communities, focuses on districts under the government’s Backward Regions Grant Fund list. Wireless for Communities, a DEF initiative, has set up several broadband networks across rural Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Uttarakhand and Meghalaya. “We focus mostly on tribal areas because accessibility is a big problem there. And those who want to connect are mostly illiterate, and therefore more dependent on audio-visual tools, a good part of which works on broadband only,” says Osama Manzar, founder-director of DEF.
RBPL, which operates under the name AirJaldi, was initiated in 2005 by a group of hacktivists in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, in the early days of broadband. Today, it has seven networks across six states of varying topography (HP, Uttarakhand , Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) with plans to eventually expand to rural areas nationwide. “In 2014, a 128 kbps connection is not internet. I have seen computer labs in schools that haven’t been operational for years,” says Ginguld, who joined the company in 2007. “When private users see a real internet connection, it changes things. Sure, they might use it to go to Jabong but they might also go to Khan Academy or open a business.”
Unlike the very few existing broadband networks in remote areas that behave like any other rural infrastructure set-up (there will be power lines but no electricity, roads but no state transport), DEF invests in a long and slow arc of change, from introducing the magical world of internet to capacity building. The task of finding customers in rural areas and building the demand-side is not as simple as selling a connection in an urban area. “We create our own engineers and experts, teaching them how to set up wireless connectivity and modems, even small tower making as we can’t get engineers over to these sites again and again,” says Manzar, whose company also sets up `active points’, or ready-to-use connections, in community centres.
“Gradually, people buy their own small devices or start cyber cafes and shops. It is a long road.”
Setting up these networks is a lonely business. “You can’t do this with a click of a button or by just providing a wire. ISPs are not interested because of the high cost of cable laying for broadband and conversions are low,” says Manzar, while Ginguld adds, “This won’t make you a millionaire in three years. You have to accept that this is a social enterprise and you do it because you think it is important.” RBPL focuses on areas that can break even between 18-24 months. “We had to cross this impasse of high cost and low demand, so we developed our system of recruitment and training (staff of 40) of locals,” says Ginguld.
DEF provides connections at Rs 5001,000 per month of access point use at Rs 20 for 30 minutes. AirJaldi charges individuals and institutions like banks, schools, etc between Rs 525 and Rs 1,000; both connections are between 256 and 512 kbps. Ginguld admits it isn’t cheap and that in Jharkhand, they even had to lower the charges. “I stand behind these prices because my service is solid. I need to prove that rural networks can work economically. All I can say is we are in the fourth year of operation, completely in the black, not leveraged, no debt. I don’t have a yacht yet but we don’t owe anyone money,” he states.
Beyond these revenue models, there are stories of transformation. In Garhwal, for instance, AirJaldi’s network through deep ravines surrounded by steep mountains has allowed micro-finance institutions and NGOs to operate.
Businesses, such as B2R, a rural BPO that operates seven centres, can think of expansion and Bhupat Singh, who works with State Bank of India in Haripur in Guna district, can open new bank accounts. Singh, who now uses DEF’s Guna Wireless Network, was earlier using a data-card and sometimes had to travel 9-10 kilometres to access internet for work if his data-card failed. Ashish Singh, who owns a restaurant-play club near Guna Railway Station, MP, couldn’t run his online gaming business, which requires a high speed internet connection because the BSNL network used to go down frequently. Today he uses a DEF wireless network. Rural areas’ primary demands are entertainment services, government services, which have failed entire rural populations for ages, and education services, much of which requires broadband.
When it comes to private users, Ginguld laughingly says they look for three Ps — “People for social websites, email and chat. Pop for music and YouTube. And Porn -I would love to say it doesn’t figure but it will always be there. But we have noted that now social websites are much bigger than porn. And I am sure people will also move from watching football to learning physics.”